This image was taken in the summer of 2015 on the Skyline Trail near Panorama Point on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, WA.  The image is composed of 8 focus stacked frames and was shot at the following settings: 16mm, f/8, 1/25sec, ISO 400 using a Sony a7R and a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens.

Photo: Chris Williams Exploration Photography

Have you ever wondered how some of the top landscape photographers achieve that dreamy yet sharp look in their photos? It turns out that the answer is really quite simple. The Orton effect, as it has been dubbed in recent years, is achieved by selectively adding a Gaussian Blur layer in Photoshop. When applied correctly the technique can add depth, atmosphere and an almost surreal feeling to your images.  It can also help reverse some of the 'crunchiness' that sometimes results from web sharpening and compressing a large scene dynamic range into one, tone-mapped image. 

The technique itself was developed by photographer Michael Orton in the darkroom some years ago. This 'Orton' effect was achieved through the process of sandwiching two slightly over exposed images; one of which was slightly out of focus while the other remained tack sharp. The result of this process yielded a soft glowy image that retained much of its edge detail. 

Lucky for us this effect is now easily attained and even simplified in the digital age through the use of tools like Photoshop. In the following steps I will outline how to use and refine the technique that has been made popular by landscape photographers like Ryan Dyar over the past few years. 

Apply the Blur

The first step to this process is to take care of your focus stacking, exposure blending and touch up work before you apply the blur layer. Once that has been completed, sharpen your image as you would normally and merge the visible layers. Right click on your merged image layer and duplicate it.  

Now that you have the duplicated layer you can begin the process of applying the Orton effect. Select your duplicated layer (leave it at 100% opacity and normal blending mode) and apply the Gaussian filter to your layer. The radius at which you blur the pixels really depends upon your camera’s resolution and the desired outcome for your finished product. 

Selecting the Gaussian Blur layer is as simple as browsing through the filter options in Photoshop and selecting the appropriately named layer.

I typically blur the Raw files from my Sony a7R at a pixel radius of around 37. If you’re using a lower resolution file from something like a Sony a7S or even an APS-C camera I wouldn’t go further than a pixel radius blur of 25. The methodology behind this is that you don’t want to lose all of your edge detail and compromise the contrast in your blur layer, so choosing the correct blur radius is important. It’s a balance, and one that you should really play with to determine what blur radius works best for your needs and file types. Generally speaking, you want to stay within a pixel radius blur range of 15-40.  

A preview of the effect of your Gaussian blur settings can be seen prior to applying the setting to the layer; adjust the pixel blur radius here to determine what works best for your image.

Once you have selected the Gaussian blur settings that work best for your image click ‘okay’ to apply the filter to your layer. Leave the opacity of the layer at 100% for now.  

Bring Back the Contrast and Select the Opacity

One of the most important steps to this process is to apply a ‘levels’ adjustment to this layer. More often than not, when photographers first start to experiment with this type of technique in post processing, their images are left with haloing and a lack of contrast. Applying a levels adjustment selectively to your Orton layer can make a huge difference in your final result by bringing back the blacks and highlights that the Orton layer tends to bleed out. I normally bring the blacks in to between 10-25 and the highlights to around 245. Applying this step to your layer will ensure that you lose a minimal amount of contrast and will help to blend the layer in areas of harsh transition.   

Choose the 'levels' tool and adjust the blacks and lights to your taste.

Once you have completed this step it’s now time to adjust the opacity of your Orton layer. I typically aim for between 10-20% opacity. This really depends on your style and what the overall desired look and feel of your image is.  The example below illustrates what can happen if you increase your Orton layer to 35%, which can be a bit on the excessive side depending upon your image.   

10% Orton Layer 35% Orton Layer

The Devil is in the Details

Now that you’ve got this great atmosphere and glow going on in your image, you may ask yourself what happened to the detail? Loss of detail can happen when this layer is applied in your workflow, but there is a very easy solution to remedy this issue; the High-Pass filter. 

The first step is to duplicate your original background image layer (that has no Orton applied to it), select it, pull it to the top of your workflow and navigate to the filters tab.  Scroll down to find the ‘other’ category and select ‘High Pass’. A high-pass filter brings the detail out in the areas that tend to be most effected by the Gaussian layer: the edges of the elements in your composition. 

Choosing the high-pass filter follows many of the same steps as locating the Gaussian filter only this time the filter is located in the sub-menu titled 'other'.

Once you have done this you will be given an option to select the pixel radius you wish to apply to your layer. I normally try to stay within a pixel radius of 4-5.5 (any larger and the image detail can get grainy). Pick your desired radius and click OK.  

Once you have selected the high-pass filter you can choose your pixel radius size; I normally choose between 4 and 5.5.

If you aren’t familiar with this type of application your first thought will probably be: 'what did I just do to my image?' as you stare at the grey layer on your screen. Fear not! There’s a very easy solution; you will need to select the layer and choose the ‘Soft Light’ blending mode.  

Make sure to apply the 'soft light' blending mode to your layer to blend the high-pass pixel detail seamlessly into your exposure.

This mode seamlessly blends the High-Pass pixel detail back into your image. You may want to adjust the opacity of this layer to your tastes after its application, but that’s all there is to it!  If you feel like you've got your settings down to a science you may want to even record this as an action. Be aware that every image will be a bit different from a processing stand point, however, so you may want to make subtle changes on a case by case basis.

Toggle the application of your layers off and on and make changes in opacity, detail and contrast as you see fit.

The Final Product

No Orton applied Orton applied

If you’ve completed all of these steps successfully, you now know how to effectively utilize an Orton layer in your workflow. This type of layer can be added to anything from landscapes, to wildlife, and even to portraits in some cases. The limits are only bound by your creativity. Have fun with it and happy shooting!